How 2013 Became the Year of the Slavery Film

There are seven new films about slavery coming out this year. Allison Samuels talks to critics.

Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company

With the big win of Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge tale Django Unchained at the box office and at this year’s Oscars, it should come as no real surprise that not one, not two, but a staggering seven slave-themed films are set to be released this year on the silver screen.

The movies will cover a painful period in this country’s history that arguably has never been given the full attention it deserves in any forum. But while some hail the attention, others are saying that the release of these films during the tenure of the first black president is downright confusing if not disturbing.

Among the seven slavery-focused films to be released this year, perhaps the likeliest box-office hit is the Brad Pitt-produced 12 Years a Slave. The film, directed by Steve McQueen, stars Pitt, recent Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, Alfe Woodward, Paul Giamatti, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The story focuses on a free black man (Ejiofor) living in New York during the 1800s until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South.

Among the others:

Savannah, starring James Caviezel and, again, Ejiofor; it’s loosely based on the book Ducks, Dogs and Friends by John Eugene Cay Jr. and tells the story of a well-educated white hunter who develops a friendship with a freed slave; Something Whispered, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as a man who attempts to free his family from slavery on a tobacco plantation in 1850;The North Star, starring Keith David, the true story of Big Ben Jones, a slave who escaped from a Southern plantation in 1848 and is helped by local Quakers; The Keeping Room, a Civil War drama about three Southern women forced to protect their home against a group of Union Army soldiers;Belle, set in the 1700s, the story of a mixed-race girl who falls in love with an advocate for slave emancipation; And Tula, with Danny Glover, focusing on a slave uprising on the Dutch colony of Curaçao in 1795.

It is worth nothing that the director of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, is British and of African descent and that several of the other six films are being told from the viewpoint of the black character. Two of the films are independent productions and were made outside of major Hollywood studios.

Still, the confluence of films with Obama’s presidency makes some industry insiders ponder, why now? “Films like Django and Lincoln were ideas well under way before President Obama was elected, so that’s important to note here,” says director Reginald Hudlin, who also produced Django Unchained. “But … I do feel [that] some coming are the result of remembering days gone by and rejecting where we are today. I mean President Obama has been subjected to a great deal of disrespect so it’s not surprising that stories about the days where African-Americans didn’t have the kind of power that we have now would be interesting to many people. A kind of longing for used to be. Someone actually yelled ‘you lie’ to our president during the State of the Union. What does that tell you?”

Noted African-American film historian and author Donald Bogle admits he's surprised at the timing of the long list of slave-themed films. “It’s difficult not to question the timing of these films and what it really means,” says Bogle who teaches film studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “But I’m also not sure any them will have the same draw that made people go to see Django. That film told the story of slavery in a very unique way that hadn’t been done before and probably won’t be again. Slavery is not a subject in film people rush out to see as a rule.” The most recent Hollywood film focused on slavery was Steven Spielberg's 1997 Amistad. Despite massive media coverage, it enjoyed only moderate box office success.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 for her film Middle of Nowhere, suggests that the very fact of all these films indicates a lingering discomfort with African Americans in the present tense. “To be frank I think there’s more of a comfort level with looking at black people in hindsight as far as film goes,” she says. “I’m more likely to get permission-based money to make a film on us living in the past than of black people living, loving, and being ourselves in the present day. Tally up the films of the past 10 years, aside from Mr. [Tyler] Perry and you’ll find an imbalance between contemporary and historical cinematic images of black people. And let’s not talk about future images. When was the last time you saw a black feature film set in space?” To Du Vernay’s point, the ’70s television show Good Times—based on a loving but very poor black family in a housing project in Chicago— is now set to be made into a motion picture.

Others in the African American community say they might not mind the proliferation of films as much if it meant that an open and honest discussion regarding slavery, its meaning and continued impact on African-American life to this day would now begin to take place. But William Jelani Cobb, professor of history and director of the Institute of African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut, is not convinced that is what is going to happen. “Obviously I haven’t seen the films so I only have a slight idea of what they are all about. But I really don’t see this as being a progressive movement for African-Americans and the discussion of slavery if it’s the way slavery has been dealt with in films in the past is any indication.” Cobb was publicly critical of the film Lincoln and its portrayal of President Lincoln as a saint-like figure and savior of African-American slaves. “There is this insistence on telling only part of the story of slavery, particularly when it comes to President Lincoln and that serves no good purpose,” says Cobb. “Lincoln did not free the slaves because of his love for black people or because he felt blacks were equal. He was planning to ship blacks to Haiti after slavery.”

Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis made history in 1997 when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his sweeping oratorio Blood on the Fields. The work reveals the harrowing tragedy of slavery told through such powerful music compositions as “40 Lashes” and is seen through the eyes of two lovers. More than two decades later Marsalis performed the work again last month at Jazz at Lincoln Center for a new generation of fans and says he believes people should make the effort to educate themselves about the history of black America and that includes the dark history of slavery as well.

“First off I don’t think this is a trend that relates to President Obama at because President Obama is the President of the United States and not just black America,” said Marsalis. “I’m not sure why there are so many films about slavery coming out right now but I do know that we can’t depend on a movie to tell the story of black history. If you want to know the story of slavery or of Lincoln or whatever, you need to learn about in school, read a book or you ask your people what happened. That’s how you learn the truth. It’s that simple.”